Sunday, July 27, 2014

What does it mean to resist? Trans/queer organizing and prison abolition in light of Foucault



A really common question after reading Foucault is: “how do we resist?” I wanted to post some material on trans/queer organizing for prison abolition and how it might relate to Foucault. Above is a video of Dean Spade and Reina Gossett, both of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (an organization that works to provide legal aid to transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex people), and Cece McDonald, a trans woman who went to jail for defending herself against against racist and transphobic violence, in discussion about what it means to have an abolitionist framework for thinking about trans and queer politics.

One example that I think nicely articulates the ways in which an abolitionist framework for trans/queer politics is related to Foucault’s conception of power is in the discussion about how to lessen violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people in prison. Recently, there has been much more attention to the violence that trans people (and especially trans women of color) face in prison, and one of the reforms proposed is to build separate prisons for gender non-conforming folks. Although often understood in terms of “progress," what this type of "human" imprisonment does is increase the policing of trans bodies and the hold that the state has over trans lives, leading to higher levels of incarceration. It also furthers the idea that police and prisons make us safer, rather than as sites that regulate our bodies and commit violence against those who trangress norms. A politics of prison abolition instead works for reforms that makes the lives of those incarcerated more bearable while resisting those reforms (like separate, "safer" prisons) which increase systemic violence.

Dean Spade’s book, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, is excellent and its arguments rely heavily on Foucault. You can find a few chapters of the book here for free.

5 comments:

Angela Jiang said...


I found this interesting since I never contemplated the radical issues that transgender people face in prison before.

I am a bit confused by the last portion of the writing. Are you arguing in support for building separate prisons for gender non-conforming people or are you arguing against it? (Maybe it's obvious and I'm just not reading it correctly...)

Sydney said...

Thanks for the comment!

To (hopefully) clarify: I'm arguing against the building of separate prisons. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) if the prisons are built, they will be populated, increasing the already large number of trans people who are incarcerated; 2) the building of prisons increases the hold of the state over trans lives and the increasingly violent regulation of those lives; and 3) prisons are not safe spaces for anyone, so the idea that there could be "safer" prisons disregards the institutional violence inherent in the site of the prison (for example, people often mention the violence that trans women face at the hands of other prisoners, but fail to account for the violences committed by the police and guards).

Let me know if it's still unclear!

Cheyenne Overall said...

YAAAAAY!! Prison abolition talk!! I took Legal Studies 185 entitled "Prisons" (triples as an Ethnic Studies and Architecture class) last semester where we discussed the prison system in the context of Foucault and briefly looked at how queer bodies are treated within the system. My interest turned into a topic for my final paper in Rhetoric R1B and I have to concede that the course did a number on me and made me an avid prison abolitionist.
I think that Cece's comments in this video really hearken to a Foucauldian understanding of the power of discourse as a form of resistance. By talking about these issues, by bringing them into the forefront of public consciousness, and by humanizing folks in the process, LGBTQ/Queer organizers resist the sort of over-determination that dominates the meaning of their bodies and legitimize their abuse under the current carceral regime. I love talking about this topic but, I'll just resist my urge to babble. Thanks for posting.

King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
King said...

Like Angela, I never really considered the issue of sexual diversity in the prison system. As a child I had naively always thought that prisons should be places of rehabilitation but as we all know that is far from the case.

There is hope for a prison system that actually rehabilitates and there are good examples of it in places like Norway - http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1989083,00.html

However, when and if we will ever get to see that in America is a question left to the ages.